Regan looked out the window of the car as it sped around the looping curve and up onto the highway. The roads were fairly devoid of life. She had never really appreciated the quiet that came with the night. Trees streaked past in the darkness, joined periodically by the flash of a mile marker sign. She craned her neck to gaze upwards at the clear night sky. It seemed brighter, somehow, richer. When she was a kid, her family would cross over into Canada and camp at a little provincial park. She remembered lying in the sand dunes and staring up at the stars, marveling at how there seemed to be so many more in Canada than back in the US.
She took a breath, something she was learning she had to think about first, and then let out a long sigh. She missed camping.
“How far is it to the Earl’s?”
Larry peered at her in the rear view mirror. “His Lordship’s out at his horse ranch in Oxford. So, about an hour I’d guess, assuming nothing interesting happens.”
Regan leaned forward to see the speedometer. The needle was resting neatly at seventy five miles per hour. “I thought vampires liked to drive fast.”
“Ever hit a pothole at a-hundred plus?”
Regan blinked. “No.”
“Try it sometime and then ask me that again.”
Regan sat back in her seat and occupied her mind by opening the flower box again to examine the black rose. She turned on the iPod to have some light. Her first thought had been that the rose had been painted, but as she studied it she was becoming more convinced that it had not been. This was a true black rose.
“Hey,” Larry said over his shoulder. “Do you mind?”
Regan looked up. “What?”
“The light. Kind of distracting at night, ya know?”
“Oh,” Regan muttered and turned off the iPod again. The back of the car plunged into darkness once more. She stared out the windows, but there was little of interest as more forest slid past the car. She had no idea that being a vampire could be so boring.
“So, if he’s the Earl of Detroit,” she asked, after a few moments of silence, “why are we heading up to Oxford? Shouldn’t he be downtown?”
“His Lordship’s territory is all the Detroit area,” Larry responded, still focusing on the road. “I think he even has control of Flint, too, but that’s also the property of, I wanna say, a baron or something.”
“There’s a biter that’s Dame of Birmingham,” Daryl added.
“Dame?” Regan was sure she knew the term but could not remember where she knew it from or what it meant.
“A lady knight,” Larry explained. “She’s been a thorn in His Lordship’s side for something like the last ten years or so. Showed up more or less out of the blue, started making waves all over the place so the Earl gave her Birmingham and hoped she’d be quiet.” He glanced up at her in the mirror again. “Word was she was really vying for Grosse Pointe.”
“Yeah,” Daryl added, and the car plunged into silence again.
Regan made the effort to breathe again and let out another sigh. She laid her hand in her lap, palm up and checked for a pulse. Nothing. Focusing, she tried to will her pulse to return. It took a bit of time, she was not sure how long, but there, she was sure she could feel something as the blood flowed under her fingertips. She moved to feel at her neck, and confirmed yes there was a pulse. As she felt it, her mind started to wander to other things she had taken to for granted. Did she need to blink? She had not noticed that she had. Would she miss blinking? Did this mean she could keep her eyes open while she sneezed? Did she even sneeze anymore?
She took out the iPod again, and held it up inches from her eyes. Sometimes bright light could trigger a sneeze, a trait she had inherited from her father; her mom had teased him mercilessly for it. That was her genetic inheritance from her father: red hair and light-induced sneezing spells. Mom took credit for just about everything else. She pressed the key on the iPod and immediately squinted as her vision was flooded with bright light. It took a moment but she gasped, felt her eyes close and she sneezed.
Regan opened her eyes to relative darkness. The iPod was covered in a layer of blood, as was the seat back in front of her.
“The hell?” Larry demanded, wiping flecks of blood from the mirror. “What are you doing back there?”
Regan hunted around for something to wipe the iPod on, and settled for the bottom hem of her dress. It was caked in dirt so a little blood could not be much worse. “Sorry,” she said trying to clean up. “I just didn’t know if I could still sneeze.”
“You can. Now, just sit still and be quiet.”
“Cut her a break,” Daryl said, looking at neither of them. “She did just die, ya know.”
“I said I was sorry,” Regan muttered, folding her hands in her lap, holding to Emma’s iPod. She gazed down at her dress, with the new freckles of blood along the skirts. “Hey, can we, maybe, stop so I can change before I meet the Earl? I’m kind of a mess here.”
“Sure,” Larry said, annoyance creeping into his voice. “Let me pull off and we can run into the nearest Neiman Marcus for you.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh, but it’s three a.m. That’s danged inconvenient, isn’t it?”
Daryl spoke up. “We could hit a Meijer’s. There’s one at Ten Mile and that is on the way.”
Regan could see the side of Larry’s face as he turned to glare at Daryl. “We don’t have time.”
She checked the iPod screen to see the time. “It’s only three thirty. We don’t have twenty minutes for me to run in and get something that isn’t... well, isn’t this?”
Larry grumbled. “Fine. Twenty minutes. And you’re using your own money. I’m not paying for this trip.”
Regan nodded and sat back in her seat. She looked around for her white satin handbag, the one her mom had loaned her to keep things in during the wedding. She groaned.
“Uh, Daryl, do you think you can spot me a few bucks?”
“Sure,” he answered as the car turned off the highway and began to loop along the ramp.
A few minutes later she was walking into the store with Larry and Daryl flanking her. The massive space was mostly empty, except for a few off-shift workers picking up odds and ends, and the overnight stock crew filling shelves or inventorying the clothing. She shook her head. She could remember fighting with Harrison when they moved in together because he still resisted the big box store mentality. A trip to Old Navy for a pair of jeans, then over to Barnes and Noble for a new G.R.R. Martin release, and ending at Kroger for food for dinner. One trip to Meijer and you had it all in one basket. Being open twenty-four hours was the final cherry on the icing on the cake.
She headed for the Misses department, trying to stay focused despite the heavy smells in the air. She passed a woman organizing some sale items in the junior section and had to suppress a sudden and definite need to vomit at the overpowering smell of her perfume. She glanced over a shoulder at Larry and Daryl, neither of whom seemed to have noticed. She tried to ignore the scents but with every garment she held up, she could smell who had touched it before. Nervous teen with too much lotion on her hands. Older woman who had pizza for dinner. A guy fresh from the gym guessing from the mix of body spray and sweat. She moved to another rack of clothes with no added benefit. Try as she could, the touch of every previous shopper was too much to ignore.
Finally she spotted someone lifting new items out of a storage box and slipping them onto hangers. She all but ran to them, to see a collection of faux silk tunics. Without a word to the worker, she quickly shuffled through them to find her one size and hold it up.
“Good call, green,” Daryl said helpfully. “Goes good with your hair.”
Larry stared at him then glanced at his watch. “Ten minutes.”
Regan threw the garment over her arm and scanned around trying to find a dressing room. “Fine,” she said spotting the sign. “Let me change and find some shoes and we can go.” She took a few steps before pausing. “Actually, let me grab some undies first.”
“Grab what ever you want, but we leave in nine minutes, and you still need to check out.”
Daryle shook his head. “Geez, do you have to be such an ass?”
“Nope,” he said with a grin. “It’s just fun.”
She continued her angry stare another moment, then realizing she was just wasting time, started to move towards Intimates. “Daryl,” she asked sweetly, “can you find me some sensible shoes, maybe something white? Size nine?”
Daryl nodded and headed off towards the shoes. Larry stood next to her, leaning on the display as she searched through it for a bra in her size and matching panties. Armed with these she ducked into the nearest dressing room.
“Oh my god!”
She threw the door back open and took a full deep breath of the stale store air. She had no idea that recycled air could smell so refreshing. She looked up and found, surprisingly, Larry right there, his face full of panic. “What? What happened?”
“Someone totally had sex in there.”
Larry blinked at her and then started to laugh, saying under his breath, “Biters.”
Regan was far from amused as she stumbled into the next dressing room and stripped out of the dress as quickly as she could. She peeled down the tiny lace thong she’d worn under it and started to pull up the new pair. The bra was next, then she pulled the tunic over her head and slipped her arms through the capped sleeves. Daryl was right; it did look good with her hair, even if her locks were caked in dirt. She checked the length of the garment in the mirror. The hem fell to just above her knees making the lack of time to find matching leggings a non issue; she did not need them.
She stepped out of the dressing room to see Daryl coming up, slightly out of breath. “I ran over to the Women’s things section too.” He held up a brush and tube of facial cleanser.
“Thanks,” Regan said sincerely, taking them both. “And the shoes?”
Daryl nodded and bent down to put the pair he had under his arm on the floor in front of her. Regan stared.
“What the are those?”
Daryl glanced down at them then back at her, his face unsure, suddenly. “Shoes?”
Regan bent down and lifted one of them up, brandishing the six inch heel at him. “How the heck am I supposed to get around on this?” Daryl did not say anything. “You ever try to get around on these things?”
“No,” he answered. Regan shook her head as she stared him.
Larry spoke up. “Twenty four minutes in here. Can we get going?”
Regan grabbed her dress and discarded underthings and started briskly, barefoot, towards the shoes. Grabbing the first pair of flats she could find with an nine on the box, she then jogged to the self checkouts. As she expected there was no one there except a half asleep attendant who barely glanced up from her well-worn copy of the latest vampire novel. She swiped each tag from her new clothes and when prompted threw the old ones in the bags to keep the machine happy. It took a bit of work to get her wedding dress into a bag without getting any dirt or blood on herself. but she managed. Daryl came up just as she was finishing and fed a few bills into the machine. She took the bags with her clothes and offered them to Daryl.
“Can you please hold these for me while I go wash up?”
Larry waved his hand. “There’s no time for washing up, kiddo. We’re running late now as it is.”
Regan glared at him, her hands still offering the bags to Daryl. “I’m going in there and I’m going to wash my face and brush my hair. So either you give me five minutes to make myself presentable or you follow me into the ladies’ room and carry me out of this store over your shoulder, screaming and kicking. And if you really can’t wait for me, then I guess you’ll just have to explain to the King of Michigan why it is that I’m not where he left me and you don’t know where I got to.”
“It’s actually the Earl of Detroit,” Daryl said sheepishly.
Glaring, Larry reached across them and grabbed the bags. “I’ll be in the car.”
She left Daryl outside the restrooms and braced herself for whatever cocktail of odors the Meijer cleaning crew had prepared for her. Not to be disappointed she was assaulted immediately with bleach, citrus, and a hint of cheap hand soap. She let the water run while she worked the brush through her tangled locks, trying to get her hair into some kind order. Doing as much as she could there, she collected a handful of warm water and splashed her face. She dried with a few paper towels and studied herself.
This was what death looked like.
She was a little disappointed. She had expected to appear more dead, perhaps glowing yellow eyes instead of her usual dull blue. Why couldn’t death make her eyes a richer color at least? It was not as though she was hoping to gain purple eyes or anything completely outside the proverbial box. Her reflections upon her mostly unchanged visage were interrupted by a knocking the bathroom door.
“I don’t mean to rush you,” Daryl said through the metal separating them. She pushed her hair back behind an ear and headed out to meet him. Larry had the car in the customer pick-up lane, waiting for them. She climbed back into the rear seats, careful not to get blood on her new skirt.
“We should have grabbed something to clean this up with,” she offered as the car got underway again.
“I was kinda busy trying to find you shoes,” Daryl said in a low voice. Regan was reminded of a kicked dog. She did feel a little bad for snapping at him.
“Oh,” she said apologetically. “Sorry for getting on you there.” She reached up to put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s been a rough night. I did kind of, ya know, die.”
Daryl glanced over his shoulder at her and nodded once. The glow of the dashboard lights brought his round, boyish face into sharp contrast with his five o’clock shadow. His lips turned in a slight smile and he shifted away, focusing on the road ahead.
They pulled off the highway about a half-hour later, then followed a series of winding roads along patches that ranged from forest to farmland to new oversized housing developments. Eventually they reached what Regan presumed was the Earl’s ranch. The property was bordered by a white fence and, a short distance from the victorian farm house, she could see the horse stables. The car rolled to a stop, but neither Larry nor Daryl got out.
“Here you go,” Larry said glaring at her in the mirror.
Regan just stared back. “What? You’re not coming in with me?”
“Nope,” he answered. “Our job is done. You’re on your own from here.”
Regan climbed out of the car, pulling her bagged wedding dress with her in one hand, and holding the boxed rose in the other. She swung her hip into the car door closing it with a bang. Daryl nodded and waved, watching her from the passenger seat until the car turned and headed back out the drive, leaving her standing alone in the dark.
She climbed the steps to the massive porch and searched briefly in the low light for the doorbell. Not seeing any, she put down her bag and knocked at the door. She felt foolish standing here in the middle of the night, waiting to meet the supposed Earl of Detroit- effectively in the middle of nowhere with no way to getting back to civilization if this did turn out to be a massive practical joke.
Regan stood there for a few minutes before the windows around the door lit with the light from the front hallway. The door soon opened. A young woman dressed smartly in a blue riding coat looked out at Regan. Her blond hair hung in a long braid over a shoulder, and cream riding pants displayed her athletic legs before disappearing into tall black boots. Regan was overcome instantly by the smell of the barn clinging to her as she stood in the doorway. Reflexively, Regan lifted a hand to her nose and stepped back.
“He has been been waiting.” She turned and walked back down the front hall, leaving Regan to stand alone on the porch. She remained a moment and then took her bag and quickly followed. The hall lead to a sitting room with vast open windows reflecting the light of the roaring fire in the hearth. A tall chair sat next to the fireplace, its occupant reading a tablet computer, his features lit by the device. He was silver haired, the white wisps brushed back and swept down to his shoulders. Dark lines crossed his brow, and framed his mouth. He held a finger, pensively, over his thin mouth, as dark, small eyes squinted into the light of the screen. The girl who had greeted her at the door stood just next to the doorway, politely waiting.
The man in the chair lowered the tablet as Regan came into the room. He stood slowly, his frame long and slender. He, too, was dressed in riding coat and Regan had to blink as her senses were assaulted by the scent of horses. He stared down at her, his dark eyes seeming to dance in the firelight that filled the room.
The girl spoke. “My Lord Joshua Strathmore Rose, Earl of Detroit, may I present to you Miss Regan Fairchild of the Coins, Progeny of the late Kendra Hampton?”
The Earl looked her over. Regan shifted her weight nervously, starting to wish she had taken the heels Daryl had offered so she would not feel so short. She was not sure what she was supposed to say, if anything. She settled for letting the bag with her wedding dress slip the last few inches to the floor and held the flower box in front of her with both hands.
“I can see my new thralls followed my directions precisely and made no stops in ferrying you to your introduction.” His voice was smooth but confident, his displeasure as plain as his sarcasm.
The girl next to her spoke up quickly. “I shall see they are properly disciplined, M’lord.”
“Disciplined?” Regan was surprised to hear herself ask quickly. “It was my idea, sir. I mean, your Earlship.” She had no desire to see them hurt for doing just what she had asked, begged actually.
“Do not worry for them, Miss Fairchild,” the Earl said. “Miss Stephanowski will likely do little more than than suspend their pay for a night.” He smoothed the front of his coat, trying, and failing, to not look annoyed at her Regan’s arrival. “Welcome to my domain. Obey my commands, and you shall be granted my protection. Prove to me your loyalty and you shall be rewarded.” The words sounded rehearsed; he made no effort to hide that this was a ritual he had completed many times before. His formal task completed, he reclined smoothly and lifted the tablet to resume his review of its contents. “You may go.”
Regan stood there, watching. It was over. Her grand introduction to the Earl of Detroit was over in less time than it took to walk in from the driveway. She had so many questions. He had ordered the death of her Maker. Was he even going to say anything about that? She looked at the girl for guidance, but Stephanowski had already stretched an arm out stiffly towards the hallway, inviting her to make an exit. Regan started to turn and then paused.
“I think we missed a part.”
The girl’s face showed her shock at Regan’s statement. Regan turned to the Earl. He stared back at her, his face annoyed. “Excuse me, Miss Fairchild?”
Opening the box, Regan took out the black rose. “I think you forgot to give me a chance to-”
“My memory is not faulty,” the Earl snapped. “I took control of this county in 1805 and I can still recount every blemish on that French whore’s face as she knelt before me and begged me for mercy for her progeny. I assure you, Miss Fairchild, my memory is quite in the clear, but my patience- that is indeed fading.”
Clutching the black rose in a tight fist, Regan thrust it towards the Earl. “The note said I was supposed to present this to you.” The words tumbled out quickly, her mind racing as to whether or not she should have said anything in the first place.
The Earl reached out a hand and gestured, his face still in annoyed, though he did not speak. The girl took the rose from Regan and brought to him. He continued to watch her as the rose was brought to him, breaking her gaze only to glance at the note. He nodded calmly and set the rose aside. “Thank you for this token, Miss Fairchild. You are excused.”
The girl crossed the room, took hold of Regan’s bag and pressed a hand to her back, guiding her out of the room. She made no attempt to resist, and soon they were back in the hallway, the door closed behind them.
“I thought you were going to join your Maker for sure,” Stephanowski said in a low voice, guiding them towards the front door again. “No one brings gifts to their presentations. It’s considered a little pretentious.”
“Pretentious?” Regan could feel her face paling, cooling as the blood flowed from it. She had never been so aware of herself and her body before tonight.
“Well,” the girl explained, “I guess it is like saying that you have something that the Earl doesn’t and that doesn’t always sit well. Who suggested you do that?”
Regan shook her head, quickly. “No one,” she said. “It was the coffin with me. I just assumed that it was all part of this.”
Stehphanowski stopped them in the hall at the front door. “Oh it’s very much not.” She covered her mouth in a polite cough and regained her formal posture. “I am Klarissa Stephanowski, the Earl’s personal aide, and perhaps the one you should talk to for the next few nights for any official matters.”
Regan was more than ready to concede that point, but so many questions remained. What had become of her Maker? Who had put that rose in her coffin if not him? Did thralls answer to a specific vampire or did they obey all of them?
“My lord is quite certain that you have questions, but he is declining to address them this evening,” she continued. “He has, however, asked me to extend to you an invitation to spend the day in our home or if you would prefer, you may have use of one of our cars to return to your mortal home until tomorrow evening.” She smiled formally and waited.
It seems our heroine is at a cross roads. What, dear reader, shall she do?
A) Accept the Earl's hospitality and stay for the day (2)
B) Take one of the Earl's cars and return to her home. (4)
C) Storm back into the sitting room and demand answers.(3)
Our story continues in the Chapter 2 Addendum.